Articles by Alex Ryder, Break ups, Couple's counselling

Why do I get so defensive?

How to recognise and reverse the harmful effects of defensiveness in your communication.

You might have read an article I wrote recently on how to help your partner when they are being defensive. Defensiveness is a human trait that shows up in all intimate relationships. This article is about what you can do if you find yourself getting defensive.

Defensiveness is easy to recognise in your partner, but it takes a great deal of emotional intelligence to recognise defensiveness in yourself. If you are feeling constantly criticised in your relationship or you feel inferior to your partner, then it is likely that defensiveness is showing up for you.

Defensiveness protects you from feeling uncomfortable feelings, and it is accompanied by an automatic fight, flight or freeze response which happens very quickly. So not only can it be difficult to recognise it, dealing with it can be a little uncomfortable.

Six antidotes for your own defensiveness

1. Recognise it

Defensiveness is often an automatic response. Key signs you’re being defensive include:

  • You’ve interrupted your partner.
  • You’ve stopped listening and a ready to respond.
  • You’ve started your response with the word “but”.

2. Breath

Taking a conscious breath will help you re-engage your parasympathetic nervous system and allow you to think more clearly, meaning you can analyse the situation rather than simply reacting.

3. Stop and Listen

When defensiveness shows up it means you have stopped listening to your partner. This causes communication breakdown. Try to put your reactive thoughts aside and listen with curiosity to your partner. Listening with curiosity will keep you out of defensiveness.

4. Ask for a time-out

Allowing time to calm down will also help settle your fight, flight or freeze response. You can then return to the conversation in a calm and open manner.

5. Find something to agree with

There is always something you can agree with and doing so will dramatically alter the outcome of the conversation. At the very least you can acknowledge what your partner is feeling. You mightn’t agree with the reason they feel that way, but the feeling is real for them.

6. Take responsibility

The reason defensiveness is so damaging to relationships is because it effectively shifts blame back onto your partner. By accepting responsibility for your part in the conversation/issue, as small as it might be, you can hose down (rather than fuel) the cycle of defensiveness. You give your partner a break.

For example:

“I apologise for my tone of voice”. FULL STOP. Any comment that follows that is likely to invalidate the accountability you are trying to take, and shift responsibility back to your partner. Try taking responsibility without justifying your behaviour.

We all have the capacity to have a difficult conversation, but it’s just about impossible when you are in a defensive state. To avoid communication breakdown, try to focus on strategies 1-3 in particular.  

If you do nothing more than stay present and listen to your partner, you will dramatically reduce the harmful effects of defensiveness in your relationship.

Our histories play a significant role in our defensive behaviour and for this reason it can be extremely difficult for you to accurately perceive whether your defensive response is justified or not. Your partner’s criticisms and confrontations will exacerbate your defensive response, and might well justify your being defensive. Unfortunately, though, justified or not, defensiveness will not get you anywhere in an intimate relationship.

No one deserves to feel attacked or constantly criticised in a relationship. And no one deserves to have to tippy-toe around a defensive person. A couples therapist can help you and your partner out of these poor patterns of communication, and help you enjoy interacting again.

Call us today on 02 8968 9397 to discuss an appointment.

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